Goes to the Movies, Uncategorized

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Children of the Corn 666: Isaac’s Return (1999)

Oops, looks like I picked up the wrong long-running horror franchise! Well, okay, honestly I just need to take a break from the Puppet Master franchise, especially because we’re about to enter the Dark Age of Full Moon, when the company catastrophically tries to get into the joke. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust. Actually, no, for God’s sake don’t do that! No!)

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Honestly I do think the original Children of the Corn is underrated today, especially by the usual standards of Stephen King adaptations. I probably would never go so far as to claim it’s a dishonored classic, but it is a film I’d recommend to the right person. The premise is fantastic, the setting is classic American gothic, and while the execution has its flaws it’s still got its pluses even there, most particularly in John Franklin’s performance that manages to give film history the most petulant dark messiah ever.  I do think it should have kept the ending of the source material where the protagonists are killed, but…to be honest, I say that about everything. Also the plot is not the most fertile ground for a string of sequels, but it was the ’80s and ’90s so we got them anyway.

…which is why calling it 666 does seem like they’re actually calling it film number 666 as a joke about how many damn sequels every horror movie got back then.

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For what I suspect is the first time in the series someone actually willingly goes to Gatlin, Nebraska. A college-aged woman, Hannah (Natalie Ramsey), arrives searching for her birth mother, about whom she knows nothing except that she was a member of the child-cult that murdered all of the adults in Gatlin. She finds that Gatlin is still half-abandoned, populated mainly by grown-up cultists and their children, who are at oldest teenagers. Her welcome into town is, naturally, a bizarre one. First she picks up a hitchhiking preacher who mysteriously disappears, shocking Hannah into nearly crashing the car. Next she’s confronted and grilled by Sheriff Cora (Alix Koromzay), who is just old enough to have been a former cult member and who assumes that Hannah is one of apparently many tourists who have read about the “Gatlin Massacre” online and have come to gawk. However, when Cora gets Hannah’s full name off her driver’s license, her attitude suddenly changes and she graciously takes Hannah to the nearby hospital.

In an all but deserted hospital filled with equipment that hadn’t been touched in many years and institutionalized ex-cult members, the only above-35 adult—indeed, the only actual medical professional—Hannah encounters is ”Doc” (Stacy Keach!). (I think the film is subtly laying out that ”Doc” is Burt from the first film. There’s one flaw with that theory that I’ll get into later, but having a somewhat mysterious doctor character who is the right age, who is very invested in what happens in Gatlin, and who Isaac recognizes be Burt just makes too much sense). After being checked out by Doc, Hannah is accosted by a mental patient in the hospital, Cora’s brother Jake (William Prael), who tries to warn her about Isaac but unfortunately he takes the ”ranting would-be killer” approach. In fact, Jake’s earnest if deranged attempt to warn Hannah backfires so badly she ends up in Isaac’s hospital room, where he’s waking up as if in response to Hannah’s presence.

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And…well, he is! According to a prophecy from the cult’s god, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, Hannah, as the first female child born to any cult members, is meant to have sex with the first male child, which will…hm, result in something unspecified but really bad! Fresh and rosy from his coma, Isaac quickly takes control of the town, with apparently little resistance. Hannah at least realizes her quest has become much more complicated. Can she trust her biological mother, Rachel (Nancy Allen!) or the cute guy who has happily come to her aid Gabriel (Paul Popowich)? Who exactly is supposed to ”help” Hannah fulfill the prophecy? And is it too late to stop the return of not only Isaac, but He Who Walks Behind The Rows? (Spoiler: it totally is!)

Anyway, Children of the Corn 666 is not a particularly good film, but it’s a pretty good sequel, if that makes sense. Granted I might be biased since I’m coming right off the Puppet Master series, and really as a connoisseur of bad horror movie franchises in general, but I was impressed just how faithful to the original film this sequel is and how it genuinely tries to—shock—build on the first film’s story. First there’s the vague presentation of Doc as Burt. I mean, it is possible I’m off-the-mark because Isaac accuses Burt of taking Rachel away from Gatlin when in the first film the girl he rescues is actually named Sarah, but even if it’s a mistake by the screenwriter it doesn’t dispel the theory. Then there’s   Isaac being shaken and disgusted when he feels he has to personally kill a ”heretic”, a nice bit of characterization referring back to Isaac’s squeamishness being the reason for his original downfall. However, even that’s ruined by the decision to turn it into a goofy gore moment where the human body can apparently get cut apart as easily as paper mache.

Plus, in a confrontation between Isaac and Hannah, there is this fantastic exchange:

“Did you kill my father?
He sacrificed his life to a power greater than himself.
He Who Walks Behind The Rows?
No.  Me.”

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And, generally, I want to give this movie kudos for having a genuinely good premise for a sequel to a movie that’s closer to the Highlander end of the scale for films that could spawn natural concepts for sequels. Exploring the aftermath one generation later is a really strong idea, and I like some of the implications the film hints at, particularly that most of the surviving cult members of the Children of the Corn either stayed in town or ended up so damaged they were institutionalized, albeit in a hospital that should really look into novel ways of restraining their patients…like putting them in rooms with the doors locked.

So, yeah, there’s a surplus of the goofy quirks you expect from movies like this. Like how the hell Cora managed to grab Hannah’s keys from her own ignition without her noticing. Or what the hell is going on with the preacher’s ghost (was it even a ghost, or was he alive and inexplicably teleported from Hannah’s car and got killed in Gatlin later for no reason?). Or how Jake stole Jason Vorhees’ convenient teleportation powers? Or why Hannah seems to know who He Who Walks Behind The Rows is at least halfway through the film but demands to know what He Who Walks Behind The Rows is in the film’s climax? Or…well, you get the idea.

Overall the movie doesn’t delve into ”ooh, it’s all a mystery” territory like seemingly almost every contemporary low-budget horror movie on Netflix; there’s a few vague things like Doc’s identity (but he’s totally Burt, you guys!) or what exactly He Who Walks Behind The Rows is trying to achieve by masquerading as Gabriel (beyond the obvious pulling-a-Omen), but nothing that gets in the way of understanding the plot. What does muddle the proceedings, though, is such lazy horror movie scares like the ghost-maybe-or-not hitchhiking preacher or the scars from one or two slashed scenes, if not whole subplots.

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But there are bigger issues that get in the way too. Once he’s revealed, the mysterious, seemingly all but omnipotent big bad of the entire franchise, He Who Walks Behind The Rows, comes across as just another ’90s wisecracking horror villainalthough his treatment of Isaac, especially his succinct command, “Get on your knees, bitch”, does seem like a poignant allegory for the Old Testament God’s relationship with his most loyal followers. Still, making He Who Walks Behind The Rows a second-rate Freddy Krueger does take the potential epicness completely out of the long-waited confrontation between a tragic fanatical yet somehow reluctant disciple and his insane, bloodsoaked god. It’s all enough to make you wish Stephen King would do a ”reverse adaptation” and make the premise of this film into a novel.

All that said, as far as low-budget, straight-to-video, late-stage sequels to franchises that have been milked to bone, it’s honestly better than it should be. In fact, it makes me reluctant to go back to Puppet Master. Damn my obsessive completionist-ism!

 

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Retro Puppet Master (1999)

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After my write-up about Curse of the Puppet Master, which was supposed to be the beginning of the series’ descent into awfulness but instead I found it to be perfectly okay, I thought the series had drilled into my head much like the aptly-named Tunneler and filled me with sympathy for Charles Band’s most beloved creations. Luckily, Retro Puppet Master came along and showed me that, no, it’s still possible not to like a Puppet Master movie.  Oh, Sutekh as my witness, is it possible.

Now the idea is actually rather brilliant, and manages to work from both a storytelling and marketing viewpoint. Aside from a brief flashback in II, which was part of more scenes that didn’t make it to the final cut, we don’t really know much about what Andre Toulon was doing before World War II or how he learned the ability to bring puppets to sentient life. Do a movie about that! But the puppets we know and adore weren’t created until the events of III. So let’s have an earlier set of killer, intelligent but more primitive looking puppets we can sell to our fans!

The execution…well, let me put it this way for those of you who have been following along. Retro Puppet Master makes Puppet Master 4 look like Puppet Master III.  

Our “lost episode” begins with Andre Toulon stopping for the night at an abandoned inn on the German-Swiss border…in 1944.  That’s five years after he committed suicide in California according to the original film (and, putting aside the sliding timescale of Andre Toulon’s escape from Nazi Germany and death which has been sliding since II, you’d think by 1944 the Nazis would have much bigger concerns than just learning the secret recipe for making a living puppet). While Toulon scrounges for food and talks to the puppets, Blade somehow discovers the damaged head of another puppet that Toulon identifies as Cyclops – and by “somehow” I mean his discovery is conveyed by Blade waving his hookhand at the camera and Cyclops’s head rolling on the floor from nowhere. Toulon admits that Cyclops was one of several puppets he had before he created them, and goes on to tell the tale of what happened in 1904. Hopefully Toulon’s recounting includes a description of this frilly ensemble we see his younger self wearing…

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Seriously, I think that’s too many frills even for someone from 1704, much less 1904.

And, yes, that’s Greg Sestero pre-The Room wearing that costume that would provoke homophobic slurs from Richard Simmons. If I remember his account of working on the movie from “The Disaster Artist” correctly, he got cast largely because his mother was French, meaning he could sound convincingly French. That makes sense, since “sounding French” is 95 percent of Andre Toulon’s character here.

Anyway, after a performance at a high-class theater in Paris, Toulon meets an audience member, Ilsa, whose overprotective father is the Swiss ambassador to France. In a twist of fate, he also encounters and saves an old man who appears to just be a victim of a random mugging. In reality, he’s a 3,000-year old sorcerer from Egypt who stole the secret of creating life from the Elder God Sutekh, who has marked him for death. This was a vital move because apparently the only thing standing between Earth and conquest by the Elder Gods are weaponized puppets (although Puppet Master 5 does see Sutekh being destroyed with the help of puppets, so…well played, Charles Band, well played).

Before killing himself as a grand gesture to “protect” himself from being a victim of Sutekh’s, the sorcerer teaches a skeptical Toulon how to bring one of his puppets to life, which he does using the consciousness of a deceased beggar Toulon had befriended. Unfortunately, Toulon doesn’t have much time enjoying his quasi-godhood before he becomes the target of Sutekh’s undead minions, whose powers include killing people with bad special effects and pointlessly repeating each other’s statements and wearing snazzy sunglasses.

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Unfortunately, Toulon’s life goes très mal after becoming a sorcerer’s apprentice. Ilsa has one more awkward and supposedly romantic encounter with Toulon before her father’s henchman whisks her away and practically imprisons her at the embassy. Then Sutekh’s goons murder all of Toulon’s assistants, who conveniently give him the final ingredient needed to bring all of his puppets to life: Blade (not to be confused with non-retro Blade), Pinhead (not to be confused with…you get the idea), Six Shooter, Drill Sergeant, and Dr. Death.

The goons attack Toulon, but luckily they don’t see the puppets get out of Toulon’s suitcase, or approach them from the sides. Perhaps vision among the undead is usually poor. After that skirmish, Toulon decides, rather than risk being blamed for the deaths of his assistants, to leave Paris. However, he’s forced to backtrack when the goons kidnap Ilsa, which turns out to be an effective tactic even though Toulon and Ilsa spent about five minutes of screentime together, and none of them showed Ilsa and Toulon sharing a tender, erotic moment amidst candles and silky sheets. (Honestly, not taking advantage of Greg’s…assets is one way in which this is actually a worse movie than The Room).

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The final battle unfolds on the train back to Paris. Toulon finally saves Ilsa and kills Sutekh’s goons by…having the puppets flank them again while Toulon confronts them head-on. But the fact that the goons fall for the exact same tactic again is somewhat more believable than Ilsa only being slightly discomforted by being kidnapped by supernatural beings and rescued by a man she had a brief, mildly flirtatious relationship who happens to have a small brigade of killer puppets. It’s tru wuv. 

Of course, the happy ending here is somewhat diminished knowing that Ilsa will end up shot to death by a Nazi officer, her consciousness or soul or whatever transferred into the wooden body of a leech-vomiting puppet, and then slowly burned to a second death by a redneck matron. And that Toulon will bite a bullet, get resurrected, and end up an insane stalker mummy killed by his own beloved creations.

As for the retro puppets…Toulon tells the current puppets that their final fate is a tale for another time.  In other words, they joined Camille, Torch, and Rick in the giant black hole that rests in the center of Puppet Master continuity.

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I will admit that Retro Puppet Master may not be the worst movie on Greg Sestero’s resume. I mean, it is from Full Moon Video’s infamous Romanian years with stilted lines delivered from Romanian actors and bad dubbing being abundant, but on a technical level it’s…a film, a statement that can’t be made with 100% confidence about The Room, enjoyable as it is. Nonetheless, the puppetry is a stepdown from even the lows of Curse of the Puppet Master, with the puppets not even appearing to be on the same dimension as their human costars. Plus all the show’s characters are so flat that you would be hard-pressed to think of adjectives to describe Ilsa beyond, say, “female”, or “human.”

Even though Charles Band seems to have wanted the puppets to be very small superheroes from the start, the films that have the puppets as heroes tend to be a wash. Retro Puppet Master is definitely no exception. There’s a hint that the puppets aren’t too happy about being people transferred into small artificial bodies, but it’s barely even suggested. The darkness lurking behind Toulon is nowhere in evidence like it was in the more memorable Puppet Master III. It’s almost as if the series has lost its horror roots, despite the clearly menacing nature of its stars.

But, hey…at least this movie wasn’t 95% footage from previous installments!  Oh, God, what have I gotten myself into?

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Curse of the Puppet Master (1998)

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I will at least admit that this film has the best cover of the series. It’s creepy, it’s unexpected, and it’s actually relevant to what happens in the movie!

The film itself…well, it has a rep for being the “beginning of the end” for the series. And it did come out in the late ’90s, when Charles Band’s media empire was beginning to slip off of its mom-and-pop rental store throne. The very fact that Curse of the Puppet Master itself wasn’t supposed to be – originally the plan was for a trilogy of films where the Puppets face off against the classic Universal monsters, but presumably that proved too ambitious for Full Moon’s dwindling resources – is a testimony to Full Moon starting to be, well, eclipsed in this era.

It’s also true that the puppetry in this film, no longer handled by David Allen Productions, just isn’t nearly as good as it had been. The puppets’ movements no longer look fluid, with one scene where Tunneler and Blade are supposed to be walking looking like they’re levitating across the room. Also when Blade kills shots of him unconvincingly slashing at the air are just interspersed with shots of his victim struggling and showing facial wounds. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if they didn’t play the same trick twice in the movie.

And yet, it’s really not that bad…

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I mean, okay, the movie’s plot is best described as a cliche casserole, combining the Instant Love Interest/Sex Partner, Inexplicable 20-Something Bullies, and even thunderstorms taking place during the movie’s first kill and the climax. But honestly the way it uses the core concept of little killer puppets and its antagonist is pretty interesting, more so than their purely heroic (and baffling) turn in 4 and 5.

The puppets end up in the care of Professor Magrew and his daughter Jane, who operate a puppet museum/show. In true Puppet Master tradition, there’s no explanation as to how the Puppets got there, except that Magrew found them at an auction. Prof. Magrew’s last assistant Matt mysteriously vanished – or so he tells the obviously corrupt local sheriff, but in reality he was the victim of Magrew’s so far failed experiments to transfer a human’s consciousness fully into a new puppet. Poor oblivious Robert, a gas station attendant who is for some reason constantly tormented by said 20-Something Bullies, is enlisted by Magrew as his new assistant when Magrew discovers that he has a knack for woodcarving. Robert, who moves in with the Magrews (and promptly has sex with Jane; how rude!), is not really taken aback when Magrew introduces him to the Puppets. A bit more worrying to him than sentient puppets with obvious means to kill are the dreams Robert starts having of turning into a puppet himself.

curseofthepuppetmaster2(Wait, you ask yourself, did Prof. Magrew learn how to create new puppets using human minds from Toulon’s research? Were Toulon’s notes auctioned off too? If so, does that mean the existence of living, sentient puppets is kind of public knowledge, which is why Robert isn’t really freaking out over this? But anyway the transference of a human mind or soul or whatever to a new puppet isn’t anything like what happens in III. So how did Prof. Magrew figure it out? Was his doctorate in occult puppetry? Did he also find Sutek, or at least communicated Sutek before he got killed in 5?  But what happened to Rick anyway? Did he just auction off the puppets? What an asshole! Or maybe this movie takes place after II, in which case, whatever happened to Camille? And speaking of that, Leech Woman is back, even though she was thoroughly destroyed in II! But whatever happened to Torch? And plus..)

[For consideration of these questions and more, please refer to my upcoming book, “Hand Inside the Puppet Head: The (Dis)Continuities of the Puppet Master Series,” from Oxford University Press.] 

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Because the main plot doesn’t allow for many warm bodies to slice up and drill into, Robert and Jane have a violent run-in with the 20-Something Bullies, whose leader retaliates by breaking into the Magrew house and attempting to rape Jane, until Pinhead drives him off. Magrew manages to follow the bully leader in his truck (even though the leader had too much of a lead in his car, but that’s the least of this movie’s logic holes) and sics Blade and Tunneler on him.

Jane later admits to her father that she’s fallen in love with Robert. This leads into one of my favorite moments, as Magrew tries to explain why she shouldn’t delve into her new relationship without coming clean. He says, in perhaps one of the most awkward conversations a father can have with a daughter, “If he were to leave…I’m just trying to say…I’m trying to say I don’t want you to get attached to him. Like if I were to…murder him for some occult purpose…or some similar scenario.” (Okay, I made that last part up, but the rest is real!).

The sheriff, already suspicious of Magrew, finds out that the bully leader wanted to attack Jane and goes to confront the professor. Unfortunately, that goes about as well as expected, especially because Magrew has sent Jane off on a pretext and is going about his plans to put Robert’s consciousness into the puppet Robert has been working on.

The puppet that’s…metallic and electronic…even though Robert’s talents have been clearly established to be woodworking…

Wait, I’m going to defend this movie! Honest!

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So the film is admirably downbeat. Professor Magrew turns out to be pretty much insane, believing that he can engineer a new species that will be free from humanity’s more animalistic impulses, and convinced that he’s doing Robert quite a favor. Magrew even succeeds in transferring Robert’s essence into the new puppet body, but the Puppets immediately turn on a disbelieving Magrew (disbelieving probably because he too is wondering why they waited until after it was too late to save Robert to mutiny or, hell, why they didn’t betray him after what he did to his last assistant), and Jane arrives just in time…to see her father hacked up by Blade and then ruthlessly finished off by Robert, the man she fell in love with, despite her pleas.

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This might sound like watching this franchise has finally broken me and turned me mad like poor Professor Magrew, or that my expectations have gotten even lower, but honestly the film’s villain and conflict are pretty well thought-out elements. Predictable as the plot is, there are hints dropped in the dialogue, particularly when Magrew and Robert have a heart-to-heart about the 20-Something Bullies and Magrew remarks that people always seem to be more animal than angel, about Magrew’s deranged philosophy. There’s also a good but easy to miss moment that speaks well of the acting chops of George Peck, who played Professor Magrew. As Blade hacks away at the sheriff, Magrew is laughing with delight – but then, slowly, he closes his eyes and bows his head, as if praying for forgiveness. That one scene suggested as much about Magrew’s motives as any of his dialogue, and was a small part that was genuinely…dare I say it?…really smart.

Also, intentional or not, it’s interesting how much Magrew fails in this movie, even when he wins. Sure, he essentially “killed” Robert and reduced him to a puppet, like he planned. However, it is puppet-Robert, the supposed culmination of his idealistic theory, who kills him without hesitation and remorse and refuses to extend to him the same mercy he showed even to the bully leader earlier. In trying to distill human nature down to its best elements, he only, through his own cruelty, took a decent person and turned him into a monster.

So I do want to give the movie props for having small but much appreciated moments like that, although it’s spoiled by things like how Puppet-Robert looks…

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You know, this movie might actually have a message about the futility of utopian schemes for improving human nature, especially when those schemes rely on violence and depriving individuals of their free will and…oh my God is that a rejected monster from 1960s’ Doctor Who?!?!

Next time, we get a prequel, which will at least spare me from bitching about the many, many, many continuity problems…or will it?!

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Literary Corner

Trash Culture Literary Corner: Batman & Robin, Chapters 8-9

So I suppose it’s inevitable I’ll just dwell on the same topics.  There’s only so much to be said about Batman & Robin the film, and like how Michael Jan Friedman must have struggled with stretching the movie’s sparse plot out into a book, it’s tricky to not return to some of the same ground in writing this book up.

That said, yeah, even though Michael Jan Friedman is a good writer, this book does more to show why Batman & Robin is an even worse interpretation of the Batman mythos than Batdude and Throbin.

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For instance, there’s more clumsy juggling of “Mr. Freeze the tragic villain” with “Mr. Freeze the punster.”

Fries and his wife were playing with a puppy in a field somewhere.  Upstate New York, he thought – or was it New Hampshire?  It was the height of summer, judging by the brightness of the light and the cut of their clothes.  What was the dog’s name again?  He thought for a moment.  Sunshine?  Sunspot?  Something like that.  It was getting harder and harder for Freeze to remember such things.

Notice the subtle differentiation between “Fries” and “Freeze”?  As if Mr. Freeze no longer even sees himself as the normal human being he used to be?  That’s a legitimately good character moment, but it’s all followed by…

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Frosty, “but I got something here you might want to see.”  He held out a newspaper clipping.  Without a word, Freeze lifted his gun and fired.  In a flash, Frosty had frozen solid, still grasping the clipping.  “I hate it when people talk during the movie,” he muttered.

I’m not saying you can’t have actual characterization, much less the occasional poignant moment, alongside old-school camp.  Look at “Batman: The Brave and The Bold” series, which embraced Batman’s goofy Silver Age post but still had effective, genuinely moving moments like the members of the Doom Patrol, who had become cynical and washed-up superheroes, choosing to sacrifice their own lives to save a group of strangers.  Like a lot of good writing, it’s a delicate balancing act, one that’s completely overturned with a barrage of crappy puns coming from an interpretation of a villain the audience is supposed to feel sorry for.  Imagine if Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past went around telling Xavier, “Well, that’s why we’re…polar opposites.

But lets move on before I churn out a whole treatise about this.  Mr. Freeze is planning to steal a diamond being exhibited at some charity gala that will be hosted by Bruce Wayne, but of course the whole thing is a trap.  By a cosmic coincidence, the gala has a botanical theme, and it’s where Poison Ivy chooses to make her true debut, appearing on stage like in the movie à la Marlene Dietrich coming out of the gorilla costume in Blonde Venus. 

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Naturally right away her pheromone magic works on Bruce Wayne and every other dude in attendance.

“Hi there,” said the woman, lifting the man’s chin with a slender forefinger. She winked at him. “And, er, you are…?” he sputtered. “Poison,” she said, smiling. “Poison Ivy.” Poison Ivy, Batman thought, trying to focus on her features. But it wasn’t easy. He left like a man who had drunk a quart of love passion.

Poison Ivy appears as one of the flower-themed girls up for auction. This might be a chance to make some commentary about objectification and Poison Ivy’s rage against men like Prof. Woodrue, but…no, it’s all about Batman and Robin already starting to fight over Ivy by trying to outbid each other, even though it basically means that Bruce Wayne is trying to outbid Bruce Wayne. We don’t really know why Ivy is bothering with all this, aside from the fact that the script wanted her to be there to meet Mr. Freeze. Again, I have to wonder how strictly Michael Jan Friedman was required to stick to the script.

Oh, and I neglected so far to mention one of the most important characters in Batman & Robin.

Then, out of nowhere, Gossip Gerty made a face and asked, “Is it getting nippy in here?”

Does Gossip Gerty get more screentime than Commissioner Gordon in the movie?  Let’s just assume, yes, yes she does.

Anyway, Mr. Freeze crashes the gala and confiscates the diamond from Poison Ivy, who falls in love at first sight.  The feeling is not mutual for Mr. Freeze, who turns out to be completely immune to her pheromones.

“Let me guess,” he said haughtily, dispassionately. “Plant Girl? Vine Lady? Miss Moss?”

I have to admit again, I actually liked that bit…although like with Bane getting drafted as Poison Ivy’s muscle it does hint toward the script’s odd refusal to let Poison Ivy be much of a real villain in her own right, as opposed to the super-serious menace of this movie’s Mr. Freeze.

Mr. Freeze also leaves Poison Ivy with a snowglobe.  Inside is a miniature Gotham with the words “Welcome to Gotham City.”   No, I can’t imagine a more fitting way to welcome a newcomer to Gotham City than by having their super-criminals leave souvenirs to their victims.

Regardless of what I think about the tendency of most of the Burton and the Nolan movies to have at least pairs of supervilllains, teaming up Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy does make more sense than putting together Man-Bat and the Mad Hatter, or Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow (which actually was the plan for the unmade Batman Triumphant). They’re both from the minority of genuinely superpowered members of Batman’s rogues gallery, and as the book itself points out they’re both “elemental.” Plus thematically putting the villain who symbolizes lust and passion with a villain who is a mournful, tragic figure yet believes himself to be dead to emotion does generate some creative currency. I’m iffier on the idea of making Poison Ivy an obsessed fan of a supervillain; shoving her into a spot that better fits Harley Quinn, in other words. i mean, from the very beginning, even though Poison Ivy’s origin has seen a lot of changes, she’s generally been about being a woman who has been hurt by men or a male-dominated society and using sex appeal to force her own way. But I can still see a romantic obsession based on admiration of another’s ruthlessness and inhumanity working, you know, or at least working if this wasn’t Batman & Robin.

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Enough of that, though, as Batman and Robin pursue Mr. Freeze we get the real relationship that drives the story:  the partnership of Batman and Robin, or rather Batman having to put up with Robin’s perpetual motion machine of whining:

“You know,” Dick went on, “in the circus, the Flying Graysons were a team. We had to depend on each other. Each of us had to trust the others to do their parts or we were finished. That’s what whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa whaaa the only way to win is by counting on someone else.”

I may have taken some liberties with the text there, but you get the gist.

At least we are left with this,

Bruce smiled tautly. “Be reasonable. You couldn’t even keep your mind on the job at hand. All you could think about was Poison Ivy.” Dick exploded – at least partly…

Hehehehehehehehehehe.  Oh come on, like you don’t think that’s intentional.

Well, we can’t possibly follow that up, so let’s breeze…or should I say, freeze through the rest: Mr. Freeze gets captured and sent to Arkham Asylum, while Barbara shows us that she’s even more of a Strong Independent Woman (TM).  We learn she knows judo and can handle a motorcycle, so it’s totally not out of the blue that she can be an effective vigilante fighting against superpowered lunatics!

Oh well, at least Michael Jan Friedman got away with not having to mention the Bat Credit Card.

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Holidays

My Favorite Christmas Special: It’s a Bundyful Life

I swear I ain’t got nothing against Christmas, but I do have a lot of animosity toward Christmas entertainment.  It’s not just the saccharine yet vague moralizing, although that is part of it (especially when I’m subjected to traditional Christmas music), but how all the things that really define most people’s Christmases are ignored or at least whitewashed with a sugary paste.  You know, things like the orgy of consumerism in the name of a holiday supposedly commemorating the birth of a man who urged his followers to give away all of their possessions, or being forced to spend your time off work or school with people you’re connected to only through accidents of biology.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a Christmas special that is more on the puppies and rainbows side, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (although even that dealt with Christmas-time consumerism), but…I have to say, my own favorite Christmas special of all time was from Married…with Children, an epic two-parter titled “It’s a Bundyful Life.”

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At least it does start off happy, with eternally cursed working man Al Bundy achieving a rare victory where, thanks to setting up a special Christmas club account at the bank, he can actually adequately provide for his family.  “So in addition to our annual Christmas feast at Denny’s, this year we’re getting presents,” he gloats.  Maybe in the United States’ current economy such jokes have a little too much bite in them, but I always liked the North Korean-style level of poverty that became more and more part of the show’s humor.  It just helps the image of the Bundys’ existence as the Dark Mirror Universe version of pretty much every late 20th century happy middle-class family sitcom.  Helping that image is that neighbor Marcy, distressed that her husband has ditched her for the entire holiday for his overnurturing mother, comes to the Bundys for sympathy.  When Al mocks her as always, Peg expresses some…less than shining sympathy.  “Do you know how many people with lives a lot better than hers commit suicide this time of year?”  Peg asks Al.  Indeed, this is what my loved ones have to remind themselves of.

Peg advises her to have fun at her office party, which happens to be at Al’s bank, even without her husband around.  Unfortunately, when Al is late, Marcy had already taken Peg’s advice too far and we end up with Evidence #7818 as to why Married…with Children’s Marcy Rhodes deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest characters in American sitcom history.

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More than just an obvious take on It’s a Wonderful Life, “It’s a Bundyful Life” is a riff on the age-old sitcom trope of where the beleaguered patriarch of the family just can’t fulfill the materialistic desires of his family, but the family get their presents at the end regardless, or they discover “the true meaning of Christmas” (hint: it actually isn’t Jesus), or they find something else that gives them perspective like a stray dog or a homeless family.  It is, after all, what The Simpsons did with their first televised episode, and they were more straightforward about it than you might expect.  What I love about this special is that it doesn’t even hint at the slightest possibility that sentimentalism could win out over materialism.   As Kelly wisely puts it, “Christmas without presents is like Thanksgiving without pizza.”   The closest the Bundy family comes to a kind moment is when they decide to reciprocate Al’s upcoming gift-giving by “regifting” his own possessions (in a rare moment of mental clarity, Kelly decides to wrap up Al’s toothbrush, since he never uses it).   Meanwhile Al is either genuinely terrified of how his wife and children might retaliate, or afraid of failing even the smallest crumb of responsibility as the Bundys’ breadwinner, or both.  “Daddy is not stupid enough to really believe that you love him,” Peg admonishes her children when they try to curry gift-giving favor with Al.

Of course, the situation does call for a whacky sitcom plan.  This being Married…With Children, Al’s zany scheme involves starting a fake day care business and keeping the children imprisoned.  It does make you ponder Bud and Kelly’s upbringing.  

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Of course, like almost all money-making sitcom schemes it doesn’t work , but the whole episode is just a stretched-out set up to Part 2 – blatantly so, which is the big flaw with the special.  This does,, however, allow the second part to jump right to business.  Al shocks himself while trying to fix some Christmas lights (the eternal bane of clumsy American dads) and meets his reluctant, and indeed outright horrified, guardian angel, played by Sam Kinison.

For those of you who were not culturally conditioned in the ’90s, Sam Kinison was a Pentecostal preacher-turned-comedian who, tragically, died of a car accident in 1992.  He tends to get confused with Bobcat Goldthwait, because…well, they have similar heights and builds, and their distinctiveness comes from voice quirks, I guess.  Detractors to Sam Kenniston might say that his style was his enraged shouting and screeching, but honestly he had a working class aura that perfectly fits the gritty and militantly anti-suburbanite feel of Married…With Children to a ‘T’ standing for ‘trash.’

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From this point on, the show is actually surprisingly faithful if succinct in its retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life.  Al was never born and Peg married a businessman named Norman Jablonski, but (okay, they just didn’t want to or couldn’t build a new set, what do you expect) they live in the same house and Bud and Kelly were still conceived the way they are in reality – more or less.  Actually, everything is reversed.  Peg is a strict but loving mother who actually enjoys cooking, Kelly is a chaste poet and college student, and Bud is old-fashioned and chivalric.  They don’t demand anything for Christmas, but Norman does promise that they will be moving into a mansion.  Hey, it’s still the ’90s, so upgrading from a two-floor house in the Chicago suburbs to a mansion isn’t completely unbelievable.

And maybe I’m reading way too much into what is just an episode of a notoriously crass sitcom, the lowest of all entertainment genres (at least until reality TV became commonplace), but I don’t think the joke is completely that this is a mirror universe of the Bundys (or the Bundys are the mirror universe version of the Jablonskis).   Peg Wanker Jablonski is chained to her stove and her kids’ schedules in a way Peg Bundy would find disgusting.  Kelly is (she’ll admit) “frigid” and completely unwilling to indulge in the pleasures of the life limiting how much even as a poet she can be said to truly live.  Finally, Bud, instead of futilely objectifying women, now holds them up as fragile beings whose honor has to be constantly defended, which subjects them to as much objectification but precludes Bud from perhaps ever having a sexual relationship with them even more than his original peeping tom ways.    In sum, the Jablonskis are far more successful and more loving toward each other than the Bundys, but they’re also much less free in the purest, most libertine sense.

Hey, if by chance you’re writing your PhD dissertation on Married…with Children, feel free to cite me!

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Anyway, Al comes to a slightly more simple conclusion than I did.  “Look at them.  They’re happy.  Not a care in the world.  You think I want that to happen after all they put me through?  I want to live!”  he tells Sam.  Thus we see Al deciding to choose life out of spite.

I don’t know about you all, but that’s a far more valuable moral than even anything the original It’s a Wonderful Life had to offer.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Nightmare Cafe (1992)

Apologies (again) for going off the radar.  As always, summer is a busy time for me, and it hit harder than I expected this time.  I can’t promise I’ll be able to update regularly, since I’ll be out of the country for most of next month and I have no idea if I’ll have regular WiFi access in that time, but I’ll do what I can.

In the meantime…

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Somehow “All Nightmare” Cafe seems the more intimidating name.

Nightmare Cafe is one of the reasons I’m in this (non-paying) business.  I vaguely remember watching an episode way back when I was a lil’ trash culture anthropologist.  I’m not exactly sure why, but the memory of the show stuck with me, probably because even then I was into horror so the title stuck out for me.   These are the kinds of cultural memories that I feel compelled to pursue, in hopes of unearthing some buried gem.  The fact that both Wes Craven (albeit only at the margins) and Robert Englund were involved really made it worth revisitng for me.  So, bottom line, I really wanted to like it, but there’s only so much that Englund playing a thinly disguised Satan named “Blackie”…

I could watch a 3 hour film that's just Englund playing the Devil.

I could watch a 3 hour film that’s just Englund playing the Devil.

Information online about the show is scarce, but from what I pieced together Craven originally wanted to make an anthology series, but decided – with or without studio interference – to have regular characters who interact with the plot.  See, the titular “Nightmare Cafe” is some kind of sentient cosmic being in place form that is dedicated to punishing or rewarding (of course, in the show’s short six-episode run, we see a lot more of the former) individuals.  The cafe’s spokesman is Englund’s character, Blackie, who is strongly implied to be Satan – but not the Prince of Darkness Satan, rather the Old Testament Satan of the Book of Job fame, whose job is to test the morals and ethics of humanity.  The first episode has Blackie test and ultimately enlist as its cook and waitress  two lost souls, a security guard tempted into allowing something unethical to take place in order to save his job, Frank, and a woman who committed suicide out of frustrated love, Fay.  All of this is set up in the first episode, and the show does take a dark turn by making it clear that, no, the two leads do technically die.  However, it’s here that the first show takes its first misstep by resolving everything that went wrong in Fay and Frank’s lives immediately.  Of course, this is long before X-Filesstyle long-term story arcs became all the craze, but I like to think that even to audiences in 1992 Fay and Mark’s lack of a real story arc looked like a lost opportunity.

But, first, what the show has going for it:  it has a pretty good premise.  Granted it might have worked better as the anthology series Craven envisioned, with the cafe and maybe Blackie as the only recurring elements, but it’s a pretty open-ended concept that could allow for all kinds of tales.  Yet most of the episodes, including the pilot, seem to be aiming for a retro hardboiled detective/film noir vibe, albeit one that’s smoothed down for the uptight sensibilities of early ’90s network TV.  And honestly, while I think the show could have worked if the cafe and Blackie were the only supernatural elements in most episodes, it’s just not that interesting, especially since the cafe itself usually winds up feeling extraneous, a guest star in its own show.

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Have I mentioned how awesome Robert Englund is, though?

The big exception was the sixth and last episode to air, “Aliens Ate My Lunch.”  It’s…well, saying it’s tongue in cheek is kind of an understatement.  The cafe teleports (oh yeah, the cafe can teleport anywhere) to a rural community where aliens have been allegedly stealing cows.  Blackie (in one of the episode’s few truly funny sequences, because, you know, Robert Englund) sets up a sleazy tabloid reporter Harry Tambor to cover the story.  Frank’s also revealed to be a huge admirer of Harry because…well, I guess they have to get the main cast invested in the story somehow.  That’s really where the show messed up its premise.  Almost every  story ended up personally involving Fay and Frank in some way;  one story involves Fay’s sister, one has a woman Frank has fallen for, another has the cafe teleport to Frank’s hometown…Frank and Fay just weren’t meant to be much more than just the audience’s connection to the cafe, and it simply feels awkward to see them instead carry the narrative.

Anyway, I forgot to mention, there’s a trope of little people with broad eastern European accents.  Now I’m the sort of person who rolls their eyes at every “progressive” blog post that complains about Game of Thrones for depicting a medieval-style fantasy society that treats women much like real world medieval societies, or will even defend a genocide or rape joke (as long as it’s in “good bad taste”, of course), but there’s just something off about this one, especially since most of the “humor” from these scenes can be summed up as, “They’re little people…with eastern European accents!”  Just imagine Homer Simpson saying that while bellowing laughter and you’ll know what I mean.

It's a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

It’s a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

Well, the plot is that Harry enlists the trope into helping him fake a UFO sighting.  It’s really at this point that you realize that they could have done this whole story without any of the show’s principals, and then you notice that this show that’s ostensibly about the power of karma and second chances for the deserving has a story about midgets helping a tabloid reporter con a bunch of farmers into thinking a UFO has been kidnapping their cows.  To be fair, things speed up and the Nightmare Cafe clique get dragged into the plot when they’re all menaced by a lynch mob led by the most ludicrously corrupt rural sheriff this side of Boss Hogg.  You can get why the cafe inevitably punishes the triggerhappy, jerkass sheriff, but it punishes Harry too, for some reason.  I mean, sure, he tried to deceive an entire community (for no reason at all, since he already had the story about the very real cattle disappearances, but whatever), but what else did he do?  Make a career out of writing “Batboy Impregnates Paris Hilton” style articles?  Does that really call upon the cosmic intervention of this all-powerful cafe?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being too uptight about what’s obviously meant to be an intergalactic farce.  After all, the little people turn out to be the real aliens (come on, if you didn’t see that one coming, then you don’t watch enough TV!).  Plus the missing cows are okay, their organs not at all removed and dissected to help further some alien plan to invade Earth, and are returned, since they just wanted to go to Mars, or something.  The cafe torments the sheriff and Harry a bit, and the episode – and the series – closes out with a couple of hints about the nature of the cafe and Blackie and the revelation that Fay and Frank can both die (again), all of which, of course, will never be followed up on.

“Aliens Ate My Lunch” managed to simultaneously be a revelation of the show’s potential and an explanation as to why it failed.  On the plus side, it did do a much better job of showing the premise”s potential than the earlier episodes and their fixation on genre formula.  In the negative column, the whole affair is just a hodgepodge of creaky gags and the mildly surreal, which just all seems to hang loosely from the entire framework of the show.  All six episodes are up on YouTube, so I still encourage people to watch because, hey, you got nothing to lose but time.

Still, I have to admit, if you want to see Robert Englund as the Devil, I have to recommend instead the gloriously goofy “Damn Bundys” episode from “Married With Children”‘s last season.  

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Comics

Why LGBT People (Should Have) Loved Purgatori

Since I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and since I’ve been (very slooooooooooowly but surely) experimenting with ways to add new multimedia angles to Trash Culture, I thought it would be fun and appropriate to revisit one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written:   “Why Did Women Love Lady Death?”

I keep coming back to Chaos! because…well, it actually always is a big nostalgia trip for me.  Believe it or not, flipping through my friend’s copy of Evil Ernie: Straight to Hell #3 or skimming over the latest issue of Chastity at the comic store really expanded my idea of what kind of stories the comics medium can tell.   Sure, like a good little comic book boy I mostly read from the Big Two, but there was something unpolished and deranged (and I mean that in the best possible way!) about Chaos! that fascinated me, even then.  Honestly, Chaos! really does embody the sort of works that I’m trying to analyze or poke fun at on this site, and the sort of appreciation I’m attempting to explain.  Seeing Lady Death just a few racks down from Superman actually did teach my young, naive self some interesting lessons that the medium could something other than black-and-white adventure tales.  Of course, you might say that I would have been better off inspired about the medium’s potential by something like Love and Rockets or Box Office Poison, but if that was the case then there would be a fairly good chance you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Purgatori hasn’t fared as well as her eternal nemesis, Lady Death, after Chaos! was liquidated and its franchises auctioned off.  While Lady Death still as of this writing has her own series, Purgatori, as far as I can tell, has only been subjected to one revival attempt.  That was the ill-fated shot at a full-on Chaos! revival by Devil’s Due in 2005 and 2006, which was plotted and scripted by Robert Rodi of Loki and Codename: Knockout fame.  Why Purgatori didn’t carry over like Lady Death did is a question for the ages;  she certainly wasn’t the only Chaos! character to suffer that fate, despite there being more efforts to give Evil Ernie a decent post-Chaos! afterlife.   That’s kind of a shame, because frankly – and I write this without irony – Purgatori was one of the more interesting LGBT characters to come out of the ’90s.

Okay, okay, I know that simply by writing that sentence I caused a feminist blogger from Jezebel or DailyKos or whatever to reach for their keyboard in a rage without knowing why, but I mean it.  To get at my madness, I’m going to discuss Purgatori’s original origin story, as provided by our favorite creator and fetishist Brian Pulido, The Vampire’s Myth.

Now keep in mind I’m not defending it as some hidden, forgotten, progressive, feminist gem.  I’m not going to presume Pulido’s motives – maybe he made Purgatori a lesbian just to stoke (eeeew) his readers’ T&A fantasies, maybe he genuinely wanted to do something with a gay protagonist, maybe both (it is possible to want to do both, you know) – but Purgatori is definitely catering to what feminists call the “male gaze.”  I mean, check out this scene showing how Purgatori became a demon-vampire thing:

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The funny thing is that this really isn’t all that much more explicit than, say, an issue of “Green Lantern” or “X-Force.”

“You want your “male gaze”?  Chaos! has got yer “male gaze” right here!!!

If you’re offended, at least let me see if I can mitigate your offense with context.  If you’re having a considerably different reaction (or you’re offended and…intrigued at the same time), hey…we can wait.

Ready?

All right.  When we catch up with Purgatori, she had just been banished from Hell to Earth by Lady Death’s evil…well, evil-er alternate personality Lady Demon (just roll with it).  Weakened severely by her battle with Lady Death and finding that the blood of helpless standard-issue morals only barely keeps her alive, Purgatori goes to Alexandria to confront two vampires she created thousands of years ago, the “Coven of Ancients” (I know, with two vampires it doesn’t seem like much of a coven, does it?), Jade from China and Kabala from Nubia.  They want to kill Purgatori in revenge for cursing them with an immortal life sustained by committing atrocities;  the unflappable Purgatori just wants to drain them dry of their blood so she can get her full power back.  In what I genuinely think is a nice touch, Jade does freak out when she learns by telepathically scanning Purgatori’s memories (because in the Chaos! universe vampirism does also give you random superpowers, like in Twilight;  you heard it hear first, Stephanie Meier ripped off Brian Pulido!) since she learns that Hell is real, meaning that if she ever is destroyed her soul will be damned anyway.

It almost makes up for the horrific, agonizing historical inaccuracies (Alexandria was a city in Egypt centuries before Alexander the Great – you know, the guy it was named for – founded it?  China could send an emissary to Egypt in the second millennium BC?  And don’t get me started on the anachronistic costumes…).  Well…almost.  

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Say what you will, but at least they just want to kill each other for revenge or for survival, and they’re not at all fighting over a man.

That’s kind of the entire plot, but it turns out that it’s just a framing story for the real purpose of the series:  detailing Purgatori’s origin.  In a vague and completely historically accurate ancient Egypt (*cough*), a queen obsessed with achieving immortality through building an extravagant tomb falls in love with one of the slaves working on the tomb, Sakkara.  The queen takes her into her harem of women and even explicitly marries her.  Keep in mind that this was published in 1997, which makes for a weird little political message years before it really could be a political message.

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And yet this story has never been endorsed by GLAAD or the Human Rights Campaign…

What’s interesting is just how…marginal this scene and plot development are.  There’s no real political message here, or attempts to make a point about sexuality.  That’s something admittedly you’d expect from something published in the ’90s, when same-sex marriage was still very much a fringe issue in most circles, and like I hinted I really don’t think Brian Pulido was dropping any commentary on gay rights into his yarn about the origins of a mass murdering vampire.  From what I can tell, it’s just there to heighten the inevitable betrayal, but it’s still an interesting detail throw into a silly gorn-soaked comic from the mid-’90s.

But, yes, the queen does stab Sakkara in the back…more or less literally.  Like Bender learned in Futurama, the queen had to find out the hard way that slaves really don’t share their masters’ dreams of immortality.  Afraid of a revolt, the queen agrees to marry a powerful and popular general, who demands that she execute all the women in the harem, including Sakkara.  Narrowly escaping, Sakkara follows up on a rumor she had once heard about a vampire living on the outskirts of the city.  There she discovers an ancient Celtic vampire, Rath, and willingly gives herself over to him for the sake of freedom and revenge.  Rath is something of an Iron Age Libertarian and schemes to spread vampirism in order to “free” humanity from the tyranny of government and organized society, but even he doesn’t suspect that, in a plot twist that does help explain why I love Chaos! so much, Sakkara just happens to be part-fallen angel, turning her into a powerful vampire-demon hybrid.  As soon as she is able, Sakkara, who will go by the name Purgatori for…no particular reason (except that Brian Pulido liked the name, obviously), goes on the ultimate spurned lover rampage and  slaughters or vampirizes the queen’s wedding guests and imprisons the queen and her new husband in a sarcophagus…after turning them into starving newborn vampires.   In the present, Purgatori naturally overcomes her enemies, although Jade does escape to star in her own stories in the future.  Kabala isn’t so lucky.  Amusingly Purgatori considers letting Kabala burn to death in the sunlight, rather than letting her stay immortal and miserable, a sign that she’s “mellowed.”

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Now before I go any further I guess I should toss in something of a disclaimer about the sexy, half-naked elephant in the room.  Yes, Purgatori’s body and costume choices are really not realistic.  In fact, using the word, even following “not”, feels like a crime.  Yes, the mainstream comics medium is plagued by the presentation of women as purely sex objects for the male gaze (although it should be admitted that it also serves the gay-female gaze, albeit only incidentally).  And, yes, all this highlights broader issues with the presentation of female characters in comics that have very real repercussions for women trying to work in the medium or simply become regular readers.  But that’s not the kind of thing I’ll write about here, and there are already plenty of places to read up on these points.  Without claiming that Purgatori is an unjustly lost feminine heroine for the 21st century – although part of me is tempted to launch such an argument – I’m just a little interested in how gay readers can look at Purgatori and find her interesting from a female or LGBT perspective in spite of (or even along with) this T&A baggage.

Like I mentioned, Purgatori’s lesbian sexuality actually is, believe it or not, key to the plot.  Also Pulido, whatever you may say about his writing, genuinely is concerned with showing the reader that both the queen and Purgatori are in love.  It’s just that politics, the queen’s own psychotic need to insure that memories of her will endure no matter the cost in human suffering, and finally Purgatori’s sociopathic lust for revenge get in the way.  Now it is also used as an excuse to titillate – and how – but, to be honest, it could have been a lot worse.

Also it’s worth pointing out that there’s only one man in the story, Rath, who serves as anything resembling a straight, male love interest for Purgatori.  (The dialogue insists that Rath only wants to use Purgatori as his pawn in his crusade to destroy the very concept of organized society, but the idea that Rath also wants to sexually control Purgatori is not very subtle…even by Chaos! standards, which scares even me.)  She rejects Rath at several points in the story, and in their last encounter she spits in his face.  The story presents an interesting parallel.  On one side, there’s the queen and the general.  The queen betrays her deep and sincere love for the sake of political convenience and submits herself over to the total domination of a man she can’t even care about, sexually or romantically.  On the other side, Purgatori is faced with more or less the same situation with Rath, but she completely throws him off once she gets what she wants from him, and then brutally punishes the queen for making the easier choice.  Taking that view, a titillating story about lesbian vampires becomes a weird, wild parable about keeping out of the closet…or else your devastated lover might go insane with rage, turn you into a vampire, and leave you in the closet to become an eternally starving vampire (which, if you think about it, is as good a metaphor for desperate, closeted gays as any).

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Purgatori: she’s a strong, independent demon-vampire-thing and she don’t need no man!

Frankly, speaking as a LGBT reader myself, I had much the same reaction to the story as a few female readers of Lady Death had.  It’s frankly a little refreshing to have a character that’s of course not a bundle of stereotypes, but is also not at all saintly and  not written with a particular political or social agenda in mind.  It brings to my mind the film X-Files: I Want to Believe.  Not a terribly good movie by most standards, but it was worth remembering just for having a villainous, organ-stealing gay couple motivated by a potent mixture of desperation and love.  There are issues with the portrayal of those characters – for one thing, they’re never really given that level of character detail that helped make the better episodes of the X-Files TV series famous – but among certain Interwebs critics that shall remain nameless they tended to be seen as homophobic caricatures just because they happened to be gay and the villains.  So it goes with Purgatori.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a LGBT character who routinely goes on killing sprees, you know.   And there’s nothing wrong with admitting that it’s kind of awesome to have a – dare I say – role model like that.

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Now this is what I call a wish fulfillment fantasy.

First, Purgatori is a gay character whose sexuality isn’t her end-all and be-all.  Yes, I’m daring to say that Purgatori is, at least in that sense, a better written character than Jack from Will & Grace.  More importantly, when Purgatori’s sexuality does come to the fore, it’s treated in a way that, even in our more “enlightened” times, sets her apart.  Most depictions of LGBT sexuality are still painted with a tragic brush.  Same-sex love is very often shown in the shadow of social and religious oppression, or disapproving relatives, or the threat of violent bigotry.  If not that, then it’s shown in the light of some shallow parody of gleeful promiscuity (if you’re a gay male) or of blissful Amazonan domesticity (if you’re a lesbian).  Purgatori has no such hangups.  She exalts in her sexual desire and conquests, and acts in a way that’s very unlike a minority whose sexuality much more often means being persecuted than achieving power.   Is she, to use academic feminist speak, still just using sex as a tool to achieve superiority in systems of power that are traditionally patriarchal?  Sure, but that really shouldn’t make it any less satisfying.

In sum, Purgatori can offer a different kind of release for LGBT readers.  Like Lady Death presenting a female heroine who completely shattered the old concepts that a female heroine must be nurturing and gently benevolent and set fire to the shards, Purgatori is the LGBT hero who is anything but a victim – and if she ever is, it’s only temporary, and we can rest assured she will strike back at her foes not through letter-writing campaigns or an invitation to a nice expensive dinner (which one gay rights organization did with a homophobic singer some years back), but through a vengeance that could make war veterans retch.  Further she easily translates sex to power, a privilege so many LGBT people don’t have, or at least don’t feel that we have.  So why didn’t she resonate with LGBT readers the same way that Lady Death did with female comics readers?  I honestly can’t even make a guess, although I am willing to entertain the possibility that she came too soon.  At a time when the gay rights movement seems to be enjoying some successes but nonetheless seems to have lost its bite, a busty, nearly naked vampire-demon-thing might have been the very thing the gay rights movement needs today in 2013.

Well, I can dream anyway…

…Oh, did I mention that at one point Purgatori wrestles with a couple of vampire-tigers with giant bat wings?  So why do I have to keep having to explain to people my love for Chaos! Comics?

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